My friend and I drove around back roads looking for inspiration. Springtime in the Rockies, when trees blossom and snow gleams on mountain peaks above greening valleys, is a joyous time for amateur photographers. We understand that journeys can be destinations in themselves.
While checking out a village by the river we passed an abandoned building. Actually, after a drinking a thermos of coffee we were desperately searching for a different kind of building, preferably one without any line-ups. Much to our relief there was a wee little one on the edge of the park. After I came out and dared to breathe through my nose again the nearby structure caught my attention. Through a window-less window I saw a tree covered with white blossoms inside the building.
“There you go,” I joked to my friend. “If I ever need an illustration for inner beauty I have one.”
I didn’t think I’d need it though. The problem is, I am not fond of that passage in the Bible. I’ve avoided writing about it.
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (1 Peter 3:3,4 NIV)
In my youth it was used to shame women for causing men to have impure thoughts (as if they couldn’t come up with those on their own). Inner beauty meant downplaying natural assets and dressing like your grandmother (although her clothes were probably considered “worldly” at one time too.)
Be-quietly-submissive-and-don’t-draw-attention type of inner beauty felt oppressive.
For a while, in the 70’s, we went the other way, and took this passage to mean “Don’t be dependent on external adornment only.” Planners included fashion shows and make-up demonstrations at women’s meetings and retreats. We bought books on how to please (and manipulate) our men with the only power left to us – our feminine wiles – oh, and of course our “inner beauty.” We hoped it was all good as long as the make-overs were followed by a devotional.
Can I admit that approach felt equally oppressive?
The thing is, we all know that outer beauty is a highly valued currency in this world. Research shows that even young children associate beauty with kindness and trustworthiness. Attractive people with symmetrical features and slender bodies are much more likely to get the job – or the vote. You won’t find any funny-looking people on brochures for Christian colleges and in many churches worship bands are made up entirely of the young and fashionable. Let’s face it; many western expressions of Christianity have bought into the importance of appearance too.
Beauty fades. Perhaps its brevity is what increases increases its value. For those who have relied on their looks more than they realize the reality of fading beauty can be a shock. Many women remember the day no one at the construction site noticed them walk by, or worse, called them “ma’am.” It might be wise to work on that gentle and quiet spirit before the mood swings of menopause arrive.
When a woman of any age is introduced as one having inner beauty an eligible bachelor knows it’s like saying she has a “nice face for radio.” He hears, “Run, Abner!”
I know too many Christian women with excellent character and a multitude of talents who never get a second glance. Perhaps some of them have unrealistic expectations themselves, but many fail to register as possibilities in the somewhat shallow minds of most wife-seeking men because their beauty is not obvious. Guys confide in them about love life problems as if plain appearance has rendered those who carry their beauty on the inside neuter. I even won’t talk about judgment from other women. It’s so unfair.
Amazingly, Jesus our high priest, who has suffered everything we have and knows about our frailty, understands. The prophet Isaiah when describing the Messiah said: He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2) All those paintings and movie depictions of Jesus with sparkling blue eyes, regal nose and perfect white teeth? Not accurate.
God does not play the marketing/advertising/propaganda game like we do. We’ve all known disappointment when something we bought into didn’t match the hype. He told Samuel the prophet not to be fooled when he was about to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king. Men look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.
If we want to have influence in society our tendency is to choose attractive, articulate people, possibly from the pool of the modern equivalent of nobility (actors or athletes) to represent our cause. The Apostle Paul mentioned that there were not many of those types amongst the people God chose to carry his good news to the world. (1 Corinthians 1:16)
As I thought about this another passage caught my attention: For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:5,6 ESV)
The light began to shine on my disgruntlement. Inner beauty is not about keeping body and personality under wraps. This is inner beauty: the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ living in us.
Only familiarity with that light can produce a quiet and gentle spirit that is not afraid of the future or dependent on the approval of shallow people. A woman who knows the light of Christ is not striving to be noticed or heard by anyone, because she has already been heard and known by the King of Kings himself. She is free and she shines. Quietness is having no need to fret. Gentleness is powerful strength under control. She can be trusted to carry the light.
But wait. There is an important message in the next verse: But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (vs. 7)
God deliberately chooses our human ordinariness and fragility to hold that which is most precious to him. His strength is made perfect in the weakness of transparency. An ad campaign that attracts folks to a mere facade brings attention to the wrong source of beauty.
If we have been entrusted with gifts of wealth, earthly wisdom, renown, or physical attractiveness, we need to recognize them for what they are – resources to share for the glory of God. They can all vanish in a wisp of a moment and are intended, like other gifts from the Father, to be appreciated and enjoyed but never exploited for self-aggrandizement.
When our hope is in perishable things – or even perishable people – we will inevitably suffer disappointment. When our hope is in the Eternal One we have a handhold in the future. David, the handsome, gifted man-after-God’s-own-heart wrote:
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light.
(Psalm 36:9 NIV)
Christ in us, the hope of glory.